We dream of creating a fun, engaging, and effective program that allows Ukrainian students to learn to speak English fluently, improve their overall communication skills and cultural competence. We dream of helping students become confident and gain a global perspective, ultimately empowering them to get better jobs.
But here's the crazy part of our dream: We don't just want to help a few hundred or a few thousand students. Rather, we want to grow our program to an unprecedented scale, reaching 100,000 students in the next few years.
By doing so, we can create an entire generation of English-fluent, culturally competent youth, effecting change on a nationwide scale. We can create a new national norm of English fluency, which will have multiple positive effects, such as:
* Multinational companies hire more Ukrainians and/or open offices in Ukraine
* Ukrainian professionals in STEM, business, the arts, education, collaborate with colleagues abroad, bringing global expertise to Ukraine * Tourism in Ukraine grows
* Cutting-edge ideas and innovations (political, economic, social, etc) spread to Ukraine faster
The ultimate result? ENGin will spur Ukraine’s economic growth and help connect Ukraine to the world.
The problem we are trying to solve:
ENGin's origin story is a very personal one for me. It started when I met a Ukrainian teenager with terrible English.
Olena was a superstar – an excellent student, a piano prodigy, a talented scientist using her inventions to improve her community. But as I volunteered to mentor her through her college application process, I realized that her weak English was a huge liability. To access top academic and professional opportunities, she would need to speak English fluently.
After studying English for years, Olena knew the grammar and vocabulary. But with no opportunity to practice speaking, she struggled to carry on even a basic conversation.
I resolved to find an opportunity for free, regular English practice, but soon realized that this didn’t exist in Ukraine. Good private tutors were expensive; free apps and websites were riddled with quality and safety issues. That's when I decided to build this opportunity myself.
My mentee Olena is far from the only Ukrainian student blocked from reaching her full potential. The problem is widespread: although 91% of Ukrainian students study English at school, Ukraine ranks 30th of 34 European countries in English proficiency. Since English is a nearly universal global standard for communication - in education, business, science, technology, the arts, and beyond - a lack of English fluency shuts young people out from academic and professional opportunities.
Furthermore, according to the latest results from the renowned PISA assessments, Ukrainian students rank 58th out of 65 countries in intercultural communication skills. Again, to succeed in an increasingly global and connected economy, our students must be able to communicate with, collaborate with, and learn from their counterparts in other countries.
The solution we are proposing:
Our program pairs English learners with volunteers from around the world to conduct weekly online speaking sessions. The solution pairs maximum accessibility with high quality, making it the only opportunity of its kind in Ukraine.
Today, many of the top educational opportunities in Ukraine are available only to wealthier families, or those living in the big cities. We are committed to fighting these inequities. For this reason, we make ENGin available to students all across Ukraine absolutely free - anyone can improve their English without leaving their room. There are no deadlines, start dates or end dates - anyone can sign up at any time and stay as long as they wish. Students commit to just 1 hour of practice each week, choosing a convenient day and time.
All volunteers are screened for English fluency and motivation; sessions are NOT formal classes, but engaging conversations with a peer, keeping the focus squarely on learning to speak fluently.
We have access to a large volunteer base because we have structured our program to allow volunteers to fulfill community service requirements by volunteering with us. Schools and universities in many US states and Canadian provinces require every student to volunteer for a certain number of hours to graduate, which provides us a large enough pool of volunteers to scale the program to 100,000 students (and beyond).
Our program will fill the biggest gap in English education in Ukraine - the lack of accessible opportunities to learn to speak fluently. At this point, only a lucky few can regularly practice speaking one-on-one with a native English speaker. With ENGin, this becomes a reality for every Ukrainian student.
Filling this gap will allow many thousands of students to learn to speak English fluently, which will allow them to access more academic opportunities (from free MOOCs, most of which are published in English, to cutting-edge research papers, blogs, and books, to English-language exchange programs, top university degrees, and more).
When they get older, our students will be qualified to get better jobs - research shows that, in Ukraine, jobs requiring an advanced level of English pay twice as much as jobs not requiring English.
Since launching ENGin in early 2020, we have established a successful program format. We developed an application process that screens each learner and volunteer to ensure their fit for the program, have learned how to match students to volunteers based on preferences and schedules, and built processes for supporting both students and volunteers throughout their time in the program.
We have spread the word about the program, and, even without a marketing budget, have worked with 4,500 students and 4,000 volunteers so far.
What success looks like for us:
We measure program success through student and volunteer feedback, collected via regular satisfaction surveys. We aim for an average satisfaction score of 4.5/5 or higher.
We have also started measuring students' actual improvement (not just self-reported perception of improvement). Because existing tests like the TOEFL and IELTS are expensive and not focused on speaking (the main skill we teach), we've developed our own standardized speaking test. We test students when they start the program, after 3 months, and after 6 months, and can show how much their spoken English has improved over this time.
Where we are are based:
Funding we are applying for:
$14,000 - $15,000 per year
How this funding will help us achieve our goals:
Due to lack of resources, we have not been able to build capacity to keep up with our rapid growth, so we are bursting at the seams. We are still using a Google Sheets document to manage the entire program, rather than a real database. Due to its excessive size, it keeps breaking, suspending operations and frustrating our students and volunteers. The Google forms we use with students and volunteers also have a lot of room for error, forcing us to spend a lot of time on manual follow-up with students and volunteers.
The errors and database breakdowns have increased significantly this fall, making it clear that we are well overdue for an automated technical solution. We have been working on such a solution this year, but have not been able to finish it due to lack of funding.
There are also many process inefficiencies in the application process and support for students/volunteers once they're in the program. Many of our processes have not changed since a year and a half ago, when we were serving a few dozen students - there is a LOT of room for improvement, but we have not had the capacity to work on this.
How this funding will strengthen our group:
The next two years are a critical period for ENGin. We know we have an excellent idea, as proven by enthusiasm from many thousands of students and volunteers. We know that our work fills a huge need, that we have so much room for growth, and that we can truly transform Ukraine by making English fluency the new normal in our country.
That said, we are still a young, grassroots team without a strong foundation, without a donor network or fundraising experience (and with a broken database :) With the right support, we can build this foundation and go on to fulfill our mission of reaching 100,000 students. On our own, we will not be able to keep running and growing this program, despite all of its potential.
More concretely, the funding will allow us to develop a reliable database and improve our processes, allowing us to serve many more Ukrainian students. It will also take some of the burden off our team: when we are not spending every minute on processing applications and helping current participants, we will be able to focus on more strategic priorities. These include:
- Training and professional development. This is key for our young team, for many of whom ENGin is their first job and who are eager and ready to improve their skills
- Fundraising. We hope this grant - the first one we've applied for - is the first of many. With more time to focus on fundraising we will search for additional funding opportunities, including grants, corporate sponsorships, accelerators, and more.
- Self-sufficiency - We have some innovative ideas for making the program at least partly financially self-sustainable (while keeping it free). We hope to pilot these ideas in 2022 once we have stabilized our operations.
How we gain by being a Spark Fund partner:
We are very interested in connecting with and learning from other organizations working with youth in Ukraine and beyond. As a brand-new non-profit, we have so much to learn, and we believe that the best way to do so is by connecting with others working on similar initiatives.
We would love to hear about others' experiences and share ours on topics such as
- Motivation: How to encourage hesitant students to apply to the program and not give up even when they're struggling
- Reaching youth in small towns and tiny villages; overcoming technological limitations in these locations
- Scaling without losing the quality of the program and the community feeling
- Cost-effective and accurate impact measurement
- and many more.
We are excited to hear feedback and constructive criticism from Spark Fund's youth leaders - we are sure they will have valuable insights for us.
Finally, we are also interested in partnerships that can bring us volunteers, as these are essential to grow our program. We are looking to connect with organizations working with English-fluent youth age 14-25 all around the world.
How we would like to spend a grant through the Spark Fund:
We hope to use the grant to complete and launch a technology platform that will solve our database problems, make the application process more efficient, and help us track student participation, which will allow us to support students better.
We are fully committed to spending every dollar efficiently and ensuring that you get the maximum impact for your investment. Before starting ENGin, I (Katerina) was involved in making micro-grants to youth-led organizations in Ukraine. I worked with about a dozen projects and saw firsthand the challenges of funding youth-led nonprofit work. So many projects did not reach their full potential and/or died out completely. This usually happened because the project teams (even the most passionate and talented) got too busy with school or work or moved on to other things, or because they did not have a vision for how to continue once the grant funds ran out.
I would like to assure you that we are committed to this work, to using this grant to move us toward self-sufficiency, and to fulfilling your trust in us if you decide to choose us. At the same time, we will remain an authentic, transparent, and grassroots organization - by youth for youth.
Our Annual Income:
Our Organization Structure:
We have a leadership team of 3 people who make strategic decisions collaboratively. However, we give each of our team members’ wide leeway in their focus area (volunteer training, social media, progress testing, etc). We also rely on surveys of our students and volunteers, an anonymous suggestion form open to our whole community, as well as our Volunteer Advisory Council and Student Advisory Council, to provide recommendations that heavily inform our decision-making.
We strongly believe that a youth-focused program should be youth-led. 17 of our 18 team members, including 2 of the 3 leadership team members, are youth (age 16-26). Though I (Katerina, the founder) am relatively ancient at 34 years old, I have prioritized recruiting young people for the team because they understand our program participants best. In fact, many of our team members are former ENGin students or volunteers themselves. We also empower our volunteers (all youth age 13-25) to become leaders by giving them full responsibility and freedom over putting together the learning experience for their students. We offer a variety of resources, trainings, and suggestions, but the volunteer makes the final decisions about how to help his or her student. We also put power in the hands of our community of students and volunteers when making decisions that affect the program. We ask them which features they'd like us to add, what policies we should change, etc, and follow the majority opinion.